I talked to a Women’s Studies class last week, about how gender and class are constructed in 19th century cookbooks and domestic manuals. The aim of the class was to make the students (all freshmen) familiar with working with primary source materials. What follows is an edited version of my talk.
We’re looking at cookbooks and housekeeping manuals, written mostly by and for middle-class women. On the surface of it, these practical books for how to do practical things. The question is, what can we find in these books to tell us about the world in which they were created? What traces of their social context do they bear?
First, why were such books published? Better yet, what need was the author trying to fill? Often, in the beginning of such books, the author will ask and answer that question, sometimes after apologizing for publishing another such book when there are already so many on the market. One strategy is for the author to say that none of the published books will fill a specific need as well as this one. For instance, economical meals within the capacity of the inexperienced cook, or sound advice for the young wife just going into housekeeping. Other books, the author then asserts, assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader, are impractical, or aren’t built on the same wealth of experience. Another strategy is for the author to say that she has long been consulted by her daughters, neighbors, readers, etc, and in answer to their express wishes has made this trove of information and practice available to the public. A complimentary strategy is for the author to say that she remembers the perplexities she faced when she begin to keep house, and wants to save the reader those torturous hours of confusion and frustration. The general theme is that there is a body of technique that the reader now needs to master, having been taught it neither at home nor at school, and this book with its wise counsels is the best source for it.
Cookbook and domestic manual authors didn’t confine themselves to telling readers how to cook particular dishes and perform specific household chores. Some of them had a project to extoll or promote specific values, often having to do with traditional female virtues like devotion to family, gentle manners, and selflessness. This gives us information about both the author and her world. You can read a lot from the energy an author puts into her descriptions. The more strident the author is, the more she goes into flights of eloquence about, say, women’s duties and burdens, the more reason we have to think that she’s promoting her pet values because she thinks they need bolstering, which tells us that she didn’t see them being played out in American society, at least not to her satisfaction.
Catherine Beecher is an excellent example of this. Her writings lay great stress on the values Americans should use to guide their actions and decisions. She identifies these values as fundamental to American civilization, which is to say she asserts that they’re already in play, but she also promotes them vigorously, recommending them to the reader as the cure for numerous societal problems. Some values apply to all Americans, but her real focus is on American women.
Beecher had a large project about gender and social relations. She tried to reconcile the inequality of women with an egalitarian democracy by emphasizing the importance of woman’s sphere of domesticity. The way she saw it, the world was divided into equally important male and female spheres. They were definitely equal, and definitely separate. Women weren’t to be subordinate because they were inferior to men, but because the subordination of some people to others (children to parents, servants to masters, women to men) helped society function more smoothly. Therefore it was women’s duty to the good of the nation to accept their subordinate place. At the same time, they were to understand that their contribution to the American nation was essential and of the highest value, and so to take pride in successfully carrying out their household and family duties. Women’s contribution was shaping “the intellectual and moral character of the mass of people” by the influence of home life on their husbands and children. Also, women counteracted commercial and acquisitive values by creating a home where duty and benevolence ruled. The good American home was a stable base in a chaotic, rapidly changing society. Beecher’s aim was to “standardize and systematize American domestic practices” as a basis for national unity. The example of order and system was always to be before family members so they’d carry it into public life.
Beecher’s writing is more clearly polemical than that of other writers on women’s work, but similar sentiments can be found in many cookbooks and domestic manuals. Let’s look at some of the ways gender and class are constructed in these genres. You could, by the way, gain similar insights from advertising ephemera, books on etiquette, books on women’s employment, and books addressed to servants. A subject search on “Women — Social and moral questions” will also turn up a number of interesting sources. These insights come from reading the materials closely, paying attention to what the authors assume about women and their sphere, and the way they describe women’s day-to-day concerns: their activities, challenges, problems, and aims. Forewords, prefaces, and introductory chapters are a particularly fertile source for this, but these kinds of descriptions are often scattered throughout the books, alongside recipes and housekeeping instructions, or in chapters on management of servants, entertaining, or the service of meals.
- One very important way gender is constructed in these materials is in terms of what women were simultaneously assumed and enjoined to care about.
Beecher constructs gender in terms of women’s responsibilities to their families and communities, to the US as a pioneering democracy, and therefore to the progress of civilization, and therefore to the whole world. Other writers don’t go quite as far, at least not explicitly, but the idea is often hovering in the background that women, in fulfilling their domestic duties, are making the world a better place.
This quote from The Young Housekeeper’s Friend (1859) sets the stage for the importance of women’s responsibilities, by drawing out the consequences of their behavior.
“Every woman is invested with a great degree of power over the happiness and virtue of others. She cannot escape using it, and she cannot innocently pervert it. There is no avenue or channel of society through which it may not send a salutary influence ; and when rightly directed, it is unsurpassed by any human instrumentality in its purifying and restoring efficacy.”
I’ll talk more about this way of constructing gender in a minute, but first let’s look a little more closely at some of what women were responsible for.
- Gender was constructed around women as the creators of home comfort in certain ways of cooking and serving meals
- Gender was constructed around women as creators and guardians of health and nutrition in choosing what to cook and serve
In the works we’re considering, food has a number of jobs to do. Writers stressed its importance as a source of comfort or pleasure, a cause of good or bad health, and even essential to a person’s effectiveness in the world. In feeding their families, then, women were charged with a higher mission. It was women’s task to see that food, in the family’s life, did its various jobs.
Moreover, cookbooks and housekeeping manuals are full of talk about the need for order and system. Sometimes this is just advice for how to get through the work of housekeeping and cooking, which was a lot of work in the 19th century. But often it has a social or even moral dimension. Orderly domestic doings become, in some authors’ commentary, a reflection on the character of the mistress of the household, and they are crucial to her mission, as a woman, to make her home a place that promotes the health, comfort, serenity, and good spirits of the family members, and even their moral character. In some authors’ hands, disorderly housekeeping, including the hurried or ill-tempered serving of meals, becomes a sign of a sloppy soul, and the lack of comfort and cheer it entails puts the family members in danger of falling into dissolute habits, for instance in seeking fulfillment, comfort, or amusement outside the home.
For example, consider these quotes from The Young Housekeeper’s Friend
“How often do we see the happiness of a husband abridged by the absence of skill, neatness, and economy in the wife! Perhaps he is not able to fix upon the cause, for he does not understand minutely enough the processes upon which domestic order depends, to analyze the difficulty; but he is conscious of discomfort. However improbable it may seem, the health of many a professional man is undermined, and his usefulness curtailed, if not sacrificed, because he habitually eats had bread.”
And, a little later on
“If this subject has a direct bearing upon the health of families, so also does it exert an immediate influence upon their virtue. There are numerous instances of worthy merchants and mechanics whose efforts are paralyzed, and their hopes chilled by the total failure of the wife in her sphere of duty; and who seek solace under their disappointment in the wine-party, or the late convivial supper.”
- By the same token, gender is constructed around women as the creators of home comfort in cleanliness and order, and in overall attractiveness as an environment.
The family fireside was a locus of virtue in the 19th century, where values like charity, civility, and piety were reinforced. Women were to secure the place of the home as the center of family members’ lives by making it a desirable place to be. This would make family members both virtuous and happy.
From The Virginia House-Wife, or Methodical Cook (1828)
“The prosperity and happiness of a family depend greatly on the order and regularity established in it. The husband, who can ask a friend to partake of his dinner in full confidence of finding his wife unruffled by the petty vexations attendant on the neglect of household duties–who can usher his guest into the dining-room assured of seeing that methodical nicety which is the essence of true elegance,–will feel pride and exultation in the possession of a companion, who gives to his home charms that gratify every wish of his soul, and render the haunts of dissipation hateful to him. The sons bred in such a family will be moral men, of steady habits; and the daughters, if the mother shall have performed the duties of a parent in the superintendence of their education, as faithfully as she has done those of a wife, will each be a treasure to her husband; and being formed on the model of an exemplary mother, will use the same means for securing the happiness of her own family, which she has seen successfully practised under the paternal roof.”
- Gender was constructed around women as the creators of home comfort in cheerfulness, patience, attention and other ways of creating a pleasant social atmosphere.
This was a part of a woman’s role as caretaker, responsible for family members’ moods, as well as their physical and moral well-being
Beecher, in her Treatise on Domestic Economy (1842) stresses women’s duty to be agreeable and conciliating to those around her, and, implicitly, her duty not to show her emotions or express her thoughts in a way that might be uncomfortable for others.
“THERE is nothing, which has a more abiding influence on the happiness of a family, than the preservation of equable and cheerful temper and tones in the housekeeper. A woman, who is habitually gentle, sympathizing, forbearing, and cheerful, carries an atmosphere about her, which imparts a soothing and sustaining influence, and renders it easier for all to do right, under her administration, than in any other situation.”
- Gender was constructed around women as the teachers of values both moral (honesty, piety) and functional (neatness, promptness)
Women’s responsibility included rearing their children to be good citizens of the republic, and to be virtuous people. They were to accomplish this by explicit instruction, by correction of faults, and by modeling virtuous behavior as well as by creating a home environment that reinforced good habits. This quote from the Boston School Kitchen Text-Book (1887) pinpoints the family dinner as one location for learning to be helpful, considerate, and socially adept.
“The want of a maid to wait on the table is no excuse for the sort of every-one-for-himself style of serving which is too often seen. Children, boys as well as girls, should be taught and allowed to help in the serving, even if one have a waitress. If they can have a daily share in the duties, filling the glasses, passing butter or sauce, removing the dishes between the courses, etc., nothing will give them more ease and self-possession when unexpectedly called to fill the place of mother or father at the table, or better help to counteract the evil habits of hurried eating and indifference to the wants of others, or better enable them to direct if they should ever have homes and domestics of their own.”
- Gender was constructed around women as responsible for household economy
Women were charged with regulating household spending, and these works are full of prescriptions for living within your means, and admonitions against extravagance and being irresponsible with money. This quote from The Young Housekeeper’s Friend is full of such advice
“Consider in the outset what mode of living best befits your station, resources, and obligations to others; and so adjust your plan… It is much better to adopt a style of expenditure below your means than above them. Of the unhappy effects of this last we have many examples in our country…That little sentence, ” I can do without it,” has saved thousands of dollars for future exigencies. Prodigality is as fruitful of mischief as Pandora’s box…Be conscientious, therefore, in the practice of economy. Family comfort can hardly be found without it… Be economical without parsimony, liberal without waste, and practise the best methods of using your possessions without having your mind wholly absorbed by them.”
And from A New System of Domestic Cookery, Formed Upon Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use 0f Private Families Throughout the United States. By a Lady. (1814)
“Instances may be found of ladies in the higher walks of life, who condescend to examine the accounts of their house-steward; and, by overlooking and wisely directing the expenditure of that part of their husband’s income which falls under their own inspection, avoid the inconveniencies of embarrassed circumstances. How much more necessary, then is domestic knowledge in those whose limited fortunes press on their attention considerations of the strictest economy! There ought to be a material difference in the degree of care which a person of a large and independent estate bestows on money concerns, and that of a person in confined circumstances : yet both may very commendably employ some portion of their time and thoughts on this subject…Many families have owed their prosperity full as much to the propriety of female management as to the knowledge and activity of the father.”
It’s not all so obvious as the examples I’ve given you, sometimes you have to read more between the lines.
- Gender was constructed in terms of what women were supposed to care about, down to a pretty fine level of detail
For example, as we’ve seen, if you were a housewife, you had to worry about feeding your family neatly, efficiently, healthfully, and in a comfort-inducing manner. One thing many authors particularly emphasize is the need for good bread. Bread was a major element of the American diet in the 19th century, far more than it is today, and in most cases it was made at home.
If you were going to worry about good bread, you had to worry, first of all, about good flour and good yeast. With flour, which was generally bought by the barrel, you had to worry about knowing good and bad flour when you saw it, and getting it from a reliable source, so you were sure it was of good quality. Then you had to worry about storing it where it would stay dry and cool, and wouldn’t be contaminated, which brought the construction of your kitchen or store-room into consideration.
Then there was yeast, which you probably made yourself, and which had to be not only prepared properly, but also stored in the right kind of container, so as to be kept alive and ready for baking day. Yeast was first commercially produced in the United States in the 1860s, but we see recipes for home-made yeast in cookbooks right through the end of the 19th century.
You also had to see that the bread was well-kneaded (some authors held this couldn’t be trusted to servants, that you had to stand over them to see it was done properly, or do it yourself.) Then you had to see to it that it was allowed to rise at the proper temperature and for the right amount of time, and baked long enough, but not too long, in an oven that was neither too hot nor too cold, which, with wood or coal-burning stoves, was an art in itself. Cookbooks and domestic manuals are full of this kind of detail, the moral burden of which isn’t made explicit, but the charge of women’s roles and responsibilities was always there in the background.
These books construct class in a number of ways, including numerous aspects of eating, especially dining in company, at dinner parties and on other formal occasions. Class is also constructed through manners more generally, through taste and adherence to fashion, and especially through relations with servants. Most of what we find in these books is about what marks the boundaries for the middle class, sometimes set off against the class identity of servants.
- Class was constructed through food and especially through the rules of the table: what, when, where, how, and with whom you ate all marked your class status.
For instance, this quote from Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (1855) constructs class through how you set your table
“There are certain articles which are usually set on together, because it is the fashion, or because they are suited to each other…There are modes of garnishing dishes, and preparing them for table, which give an air of taste and refinement, that pleases the eye.”
And this one from The Successful Housekeeper (1883) constructs class through taste and connoisseurship
“Dinner giving is an art which only an individual of fine culture and Aesthetic tastes can be successful in, and dining is an accomplishment in which only an epicure can excel.”
Another way of constructing class through food was in different diets for those who did or did not do physical labor. There was an emphasis on lighter eating/preserving digestion for members of the middle class, for instance for men worked in an in office, and for women who did no physical labor at home.
From The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896)
“Brain workers should take their proteid in a form easily digested. In consideration of this fact, fish and eggs form desirable substitutes for meat. The working man needs quantity as well as quality, that the stomach may have something to act upon. Corned beef, cabbage, brown-bread, and pastry will not overtax his digestion”
In other words, those who performed intellectual work needed more delicate food, those who did physical labor were to eat coarser food.
Then there was formal dining, especially in entertaining. What kind of table you set defined your social rank, and the rules for service showed you were in the club of “good society.” This quote from The Century Cook Book (1895) advises on how high to aim, and cautions the reader on not overreaching, so the dinner will be a success and you won’t lose points in the game of social status.
“When entertaining one should not attempt more than one is sure of being able to attain, bearing in mind the capabilities of the cook and the range, and remembering that the quality of the dishes rather than the number of them is what pleases.”
- Class was, as I say, also constructed around “taste” or “elegance.”
Taste, refinement, and elegant living were markers of social superiority and carried other values in their wake. In this quote from Beecher & Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home (1869), we see aesthetic sensibilities getting wrapped up with the idea of a superior home environment, one which will give the family members a boost in their social, moral, and intellectual progress
“…while the æsthetic element must be subordinate to the requirements of physical existence…it yet holds a place of great significance among the influences which make home happy and attractive, which give it a constant and wholesome power over the young, and contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility.”
- Class was constructed around manners.
In the 19th century, rules for etiquette, which is to say rules for the display of manners, or “good breeding”, created an in group and an out group, and within the group you could have a high or a low place, so you had to worry about your score. It’s not just what made you a social success or a social failure –in some circles, then as now, friendliness or charm could make you a success. Rather etiquette was about what made you acceptable in what defined itself as “good society”. This was a club you had to make a special effort to get into, or, if you were born into it, to stay in. Because there was a penalty for not succeeding, exclusion and reputation damage, a lot was riding on manners and correct behavior, and they were a source of anxiety for the middle class and anyone aspiring to it.
For example, this quote from The successful housekeeper brings out the way manners marked class, and the anxiety connected with “getting it right”
“It is almost impossible to commit any dangerous rudeness with the spoon, as with the fork and knife; but there are little observances in handling it which belong to grades of society, and which distinguish the person using it, as either well versed or deficient in the rules of table etiquette.”
- Class was constructed in the management of servants
The number and kind of servants a household had was a class marker. Employing household servants put the housewife in a managerial position, a position of authority, and these works were very concerned to teach her how to handle it property
In a very large and prosperous households the mistress might be in charge of male servants, footmen or a butler, in very grand establishments perhaps even a male chef, but most middle-class women has charge only of female servants. The discussions of the housewife’s relationship to these maids, nannies, waitresses and cooks are full of advice about how to speak to them, what to expect of them, how to arrange their days and oversee their work, what she needed to teach them, and more.
In The Century Cook Book There’s a section called “to train a green cook” which shows middle-class anxiety about trusting servants (in this case whoever will be in charge of feeding the family) to know what they’re doing.
“If one is obliged to accept the service of inexperienced cooks, or of women who claim to be plain cooks, but in reality know nothing of the right ways of preparing anything, it is often necessary to do more or less teaching or supervising. Often it would be found easier to begin at the beginning, and teach an entirely green girl who has intelligence and a desire to learn, than it is to correct careless habits or bad methods already formed.”
- Finally, class was constructed around stuff: necessary possessions and furnishings
In instructions for housekeeping, authors construct class by what they assume the reader has in the way of rooms, furnishings, and equipment . When they give instructions that specify how to care for: servants’ quarters, multiple bedrooms, nursery, dining room, parlor, kitchen, store-rooms, etc, they mark out the territory occupied by middle-class households. The same happens when they talk of feather beds to be aired, carpets to be beaten, and ornaments to be dusted. And the same goes for tools for housekeeping and cooking. In this quote from Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book in a chapter called “On a proper supply of utensils and conveniences for housekeeping” she makes it clear who she’s talking to.
“In pointing out the various conveniences to be used in housekeeping, reference will be had to those chiefly who have means to purchase everything they deem useful, and also who can obtain such domestics, that proper care will be taken of whatever is provided.”
You can see the same thing at work in this one from The Century Cook Book
“The dinner has always something of a ceremonious character, being the time when the family all meet with the leisure to enjoy one another’s society after the labors of the day are done. It is well, therefore, to attend to the few material details which aid in making the occasion an agreeable one. Refinements are more clearly shown at table than elsewhere, and the influences of decorum at dinner are more subtle than are always recognized. Let the linen be as spotless and white, the silver and glass as polished …as though guests were present.”
So, we’ve seen how, in their descriptions of women’s work and their concerns, domestic manual and cookbook writers presented specific pictures of gender and class to the middle-class women who were their presumed audience. The authors simultaneously took for granted and promoted values such as devotion to family, and the display of refinement in the home. In what they assumed they’ve left us a portrait of normative ideas about class and gender, ideas about which there was wide agreement. In the values they take special trouble to promote, we see the cracks in the system, the values that were contested, and that the authors felt were endangered.